Saturday, 31 October 2015

Ghostwatch (1992)

For my money this 1992 Screen One drama is still the most compelling, technically accomplished and effective scare story television has ever staged. I can enthuse about Ghostwatch for hours amongst friends in pubs, explaining just why I think it was so successful, influential and unique, and indeed I often have.

Ghostwatch remains a clever, controversial and utterly shittifying experience.

Broadcast by the BBC just after the 9pm watershed on Halloween night 1992, Ghostwatch purported to be a live BBC broadcast from Foxhill Drive in Northolt, where a council house has been haunted by a malevolent spirit. The traumatised and unfortunate Early family - single mother Pam and daughters Kim and Suzanne - have been placed under the microscope by Dr Pascoe who has been investigating the poltergeist given the name ‘Pipes’ for some time before the BBC descends. 'Pipes' - it's a name that sends a chill down the spine of British men and women of a certain age.

Ostensibly an outside broadcast and studio discussion fronted by familiar TV personalities of the day (veteran chat show host Michael Parkinson, Saturday morning kids TV presenter Sarah Greene and her former Radio 1 DJ husband, the late Mike Smith and performance poet and Red Dwarf actor Craig Charles) many viewers were easily duped into believing this was in fact a real live TV event, failing to notice author Stephen Volk's writing credit, the cast list printed in the Radio Times or the Screen One logo before the action commenced. Not since Orson Welles' infamous 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast had a deception been so widespread and convincing and,spurred on by a minority of infuriated viewers upon realising that they'd literally been tricked and treated, the media created a shitstorm in the aftermath of its broadcast citing numerous examples of extremely effected viewers including, if memory serves, a tenuously linked suicide. As a result, the programme has never been repeated on British television.

If you were there, and I was 13-years-old at the time, Ghostwatch had a huge impact and remains a crucial TV viewing experience. It was, understandably, the talk of the playground for days after and from both its controversy and its stunning depiction of psychic phenomena - influenced by the real life paranormal incidents at Enfield, which were finally effectively dramatised this year with Sky's The Enfield Haunting - continued to fuel the morbid fascinations of many a teenager. Remember this was an era long before Sky+ and 'Live Pause', and Ghostwatch's subtle, spine tingling chills in the form of the fleeting, cameos from 'Pipes' really are of the blink and you'll miss it variety. But if you were quick enough to catch it, even from the corner of your eye, it was suitably unnatural and made you question your own eyes and, quite rightly given the context of the piece, what it was that you were actually seeing.

Ghostwatch's skill lies in just how realistic it actually is. It really does emulate the live broadcast superbly shot on videotape and using infra red cameras to create a fascinating postmodern narrative. The tropes of live TV are all there; the awkward, mundane chat between studio and outside broadcast; the satellite delays, the phone-in segments and the naturalistic air employed by the performers. It's especially commendable that the production includes the rather daring gambit of not always making the action totally clear, with lines being delivered in a murmur or people talking over one another. 

The jovial, jokey 'it's only TV, folks' tone  slowly gives way as the sinister goings on in the area is slowly drip-fed into proceedings - we learn of children going missing, a pregnant Labrador butchered in the nearby playground, and folkloric tales of a murderous babysitter and a disturbed cross-dressing lodger with convictions for child sex abuse -  before its nihilistic conclusion where it becomes clear that the broadcast has acted as a gigantic, universal séance, thus making the viewers truly a part of this well designed, edited and plotted drama with some surprisingly good and natural performances - specifically from Parky as the host - and the experienced acting talent of Gillian Bevan as Dr Pascoe and Brid Brennan as Mrs Early.

It's the kind of drama that sadly could only ever have been made in 1992; risky and totally reliant on the shared experience of TV viewing. 

To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic plays, please sign the petition I started here

1 comment:

  1. I was well into my late teens when it was on. Still gives me the chills to this day!